Deco Japan: Beauty in Utility

Four professors presented on Japanese art deco, an art style from 1920s–1940s Japan, an exhibit currently on display at BYU’s Museum of Art.

Japan Deco 1PROVO, Utah (April 2, 2015)—A tea set, a series of animal figurines, book covers, woodprints and more. These comprise Japanese art deco, art made for decorative purposes that filled the homes of Japanese families and Western collectors beginning in the 1920s.

The BYU Museum of Art (MOA) is currently hosting Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945. In a recent MOA Take 5 event, four professors shared their thoughts on the deco Japan style and what it reflected in Japanese culture.

Aaron Skabelund, associate professor of history, was first to present and focused his comments on a statue of Hachikō, a dog famous for its loyalty. The story goes that the dog belonged to a university professor; every day the dog greeted its master at the train station as he returned home. This continued until the day the professor died during a lecture. For nine years, Hachikō continued to appear in the train station, seemingly waiting for his master who would never return.

Hachikō has been held up by dog enthusiasts and Japanese government officials alike as a symbol of loyalty. He has been the subject of films, books and many works of art. Interestingly, though the dog’s left ear was limp, it is consistently represented in art as erect and matching the right ear. Skabelund attributed this to Hachikō’s status as the embodiment of Japanese dog breeds, which were domestically considered superior to all foreign breeds, and he was held up as an ideal.

“Ministry of Education officials realized that Hachikō could be elevated into an icon of loyalty,” Skabelund said. “They employed Hachikō as a tool to instill in imperial subjects, especially children, a strong sense of loyalty.”

Skabelund noted that reality did not live up to the story, as the dead Hachikō’s stomach was found filled with skewers, implying that the dog hadn’t been returning out of loyalty, but for the food kabobs given him by strangers in the station.

J. Scott Miller, professor of Japanese and comparative literature, spoke next, beginning his remarks with a question: What makes it Japan deco instead of art deco?

Art deco originated in France and, like Japan deco, is considered a modernist movement. However, art deco was a reaction against tradition, whereas Japan deco honored tradition by blending it in with the new.

A common trend in Japanese art deco is the giving a modern spin to traditional art, while also creating “beauty in utility.” Miller shared various pieces from the exhibit to demonstrate this. Among them were traditional under robes for men printed with the skylines of foreign cities and designs of Hollywood movie studios; a clock decorated with the rabbit in the moon, a character from Japanese legend; and a stationary box with an image of Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology.

As Japan became less isolated in the 20th century, Japanese deco reflected the rush of foreign influence as it mixed with domestic tradition.

“There’s nothing stagnant about Japan deco. It was constantly updating and reflecting a very modern sensibility,” Miller said. “I’d like to suggest that, although art deco was a French Modernist reaction to art nouveau, Japan deco is more of a translation of modernism into an existing culture of beauty.”

Japan Deco 2Jack Stoneman, associate professor of Japanese, presented third and compared two works of art, one Buddhist and one Japanese art deco, both featuring peacocks. The first was the Kujaku myoo, a 12th century painting on silk. The painting depicts Wisdom King Mahamayuri, an important figure in Buddhist tradition. He was believed to protect devotees from poisoning, and the painting shows him sitting atop a peacock, with various other symbols representing his divinity.

Stoneman set the painting beside the Kano Seiun II, a peacock statue made of gilt bronze with mother of pearl inlay. Whereas the painting has ties to religion and serves as a reminder of devotion, the statue is purely decorative. Unlike the painting, the statue had no motive to teach or convey meaning.

However, that did not stop Kendall Brown, the exhibit’s coordinator, from positing that even the most seemingly vapid of decorative pieces have inherent, hidden meaning. Stoneman said, “I wonder if that impulse to try to find hidden meanings or some sort of latent cultural context in these objects is because we expect that from art.”

Though few would question the Kujaku myoo’s status as art, placing the Kano Seiun II and other pieces of Japanese art deco in a museum changes the way they are viewed, raising these and other questions about their artistic function.

Marc Yamada, assistant professor of interdisciplinary humanities, presented last on the “dark side” of Japanese art deco, often summed up as “erotic, grotesque nonsense.”

This aspect of Japanese art was only part of a larger artistic movement that included literature and music and represented a rejection of traditional morality and mass culture. Art of this nature went out of its way to shock or arouse discomfort, while at the same time teasing audiences with a promise of more. Yamada attributed this voyeuristic element to urbanization, moving from the rural countryside to the city, and said, “There are new boundaries, there’s privacy and there are doors you want to see behind.”

“Deco Japan” will remain in the MOA through July 18. For more information, visit the MOA’s website.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies, ’16)

Images courtesy of and used under license from The Levenson Collection.